This versatile Chicagoan behemoth offers juniors high-level tasks and the opportunity to dabble in lots of practices.
SAUL Bellow's picaresque masterpiece and Great American Novel The Adventures of Augie March begins with the line, “I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself.” You might say the same for Midwesterner Sidley. Over the past decade it has cemented its reputation as the go-to shop for appellate law – in fact for most litigious practices. On top of this, the firm can also claim a starring role in the nation's recent narrative, for it was at its Windy City HQ that a young summer associate named Barack was assigned a mid-level mentor called Michelle. The rest, as they say folks, is history.
“Shocked at the breadth of our expertise."
But Sidley is much more than the place where the Obamas first met, and much more than just a litigation shop. Its ten US offices are distributed to gain maximum coverage across the country, and sources attested that “whatever office you're in, Sidley has a top-tier practice there.” Indeed, one interviewee expressed themselves “shocked at the breadth of our expertise in different areas of the law.” And Chambers USA also recognizes the firm's versatility, awarding the highest Band 1 ratings in a plethora of fields nationwide including: appellate; climate change and environmental law; financial services regulation; insurance; international trade; hedge funds; product liability; and rail transportation.
Sidley has a strong appellate reputation but really its uniqueness derives from the fact that “it's one of the few BigLaw firms that has such strength across the board, especially in litigious practices,” according to associates here. An informal assignment system reflects the fact that groups aren't “hardened silos” and it's “usually in their fifth or sixth years that associates really find their niche,” though “even partners might occasionally dabble.” As a summer associate, “you start cultivating relationships with partners” and though “the firm does give you an off-the-bat assignment or two” almost all of a junior's work “comes from people you've worked with in the past.”
“It's one of the few BigLaw firms that has such strength across the board.”
While it's always been a fluid, free-market kind of place, Sidley has in recent years moved to make its famous litigation practice an even broader church – “when I started there were four or five litigation groups and then about two years ago they changed the organization to just one general department, meaning attorneys have more freedom and the teams can do more cross-selling.” Under this all-encompassing umbrella sits a plethora of sub-groups, including: complex litigation; regulatory & economic; international arbitration; white-collar; IP; and criminal & constitutional. Perhaps unsurprisingly, flitting between practices can mean responsibility levels are not easily accrued – “if you avoid specializing in favor of trying lots of different stuff, you'll be doing a lot of doc review in order to build up your knowledge of every area.” However, litigious lawyers who find their feet earlier on can expect to be “drafting motions to dismiss, writing research memos and managing discovery issues.”
Sidley's transactional teams, though smaller, are no less prestigious. Specialization usually takes place earlier than it does for their contentious counterparts, though this varies office-to-office. New York's corporate department is split between M&A, capital markets, private equity, and governance, with newbies encouraged to pursue one of these early on. Over in Chicago, however, with more practices to choose from – on top of the above three, there's also insurance, securities, regulatory, global finance, private equity, and real estate – comes an acceptance that juniors might take longer to find their niche. Again, the earlier you specialize, the meatier your tasks are: “I chose to specialize in private equity after a few months and the level of experience has been phenomenal. After less than a year I was on a $2 billion deal where there was only one other associate and a partner on our side.”
One thing that kept cropping up among interviewees was Sidley's shrewd financial planning – “they don't make plans they can't follow through on and they prepay expenses. This spreads confidence in the fact that the firm isn't going to fold or be bought up, and that extra job security is always a plus in BigLaw.” The honesty with which numbers are discussed reflects a general culture of managerial openness that permeates the firm.
Sources also kept mentioning lean staffing at the firm, but insisted that while a lot of its competitors pay lip-service to the practice, Sidley's numbers mean it's a necessity. “Every BigLaw firm says they staff leanly but we really have to since we don't have a lot of associates. We probably only have 1¼ per partner.” All this means “there's enough oversight that you're not getting yourself in trouble and you end up learning quickly because you don't have the filter of three associates on a deal.”
“Every BigLaw firm says they staff leanly but we really have to."
Perhaps as a result of the aforementioned fiscal conservatism, the social life at Sidley wasn't reported to set the world alight. A pretty standard event across the board is the quarterly Friday afternoon parties – “we have some beers in the office then head to a local bar for food and drinks till pretty late.” There's also something called 'March Madness': a fun-filled week of spring shenanigans that includes activities like mini-golf and bar crawls.
Hours & Compensation
The most basic hours requirement at the firm is the 1,800 needed in order to progress to the next year. After that, sources were unsure what was a target and what was a requirement. To be bonus eligible it was generally agreed that “you should be hitting 2,000, though 200 of those can be pro bono.” That said, one litigation sources reported: “On my first day they got the whole group together for a meeting, and one of the things that was said was everyone should be hitting 2,000 billable hours. I think this is a new thing because I spoke to a senior associate who said they'd never heard that.” And as for that bonus, “it's discretionary, so it's easy to be cynical about them not paying market. But they do take you through whatever you've received.”
2,000 is by no means a horror target and most interviewees told of working late “probably two to three nights a week,” all of which adds up to a total of about “50-55 hours a week.” All in all, many felt their expectations for the worst were largely unrealized: “I went in with my eyes open and was expecting to be constantly working into the wee hours, but most days I leave between 7pm and 7.30pm.” When it comes to taking time off, the firm doesn't have an official vacation policy, which theoretically means attorneys can take as many days as they want. In reality, “it probably works in the firm's favor because people usually end up taking less than they would.”
Training & Development
Sidley has a “phenomenal training program – it almost annoyed me how much training I had in my first year!” Newbies undergo a solid week of orientation in their respective offices – “stuff like how to use the systems, office culture, and instructions like 'don't use emojis'” – after which they are whisked away to Chicago for a three-day firmwide training-fest. Then it gets specific. Transactional tutees are enrolled in something called 'Corporate College', while their disputes colleagues attend 'Litigation Bootcamp'. The former involves “flying to a Sidley office for three days of presentations and seminars on specific topics.” Litigation Bootcamp offers sessions on cross-examination, direct examination, deposition training and closing arguments, concluding in a mock trial.
"Really it's about the networks that you build.”
Further guidance comes in the way of a retention committee – “a group of associates who meet regularly and are able to pass on any grievances or suggestions to partners.” And then there's Sidley's mentorship scheme: “Although you get a new mentor when you start, people build lasting relationships in the summer so partners you meet then still kind of guide you through. It seems like the firm's general approach is that there's a safety net that everyone has a connection to if they need but really it's about the networks that you build.”
With ten offices spread from the East to the West Coast, Sidley truly enjoys nationwide coverage. Its Chicago HQ remains the firm's focal point though recently “DC has risen in importance because of Carter Phillips – chair of the Executive Committee – who is based there.” Perhaps another reason for DC's ascendancy is the office's recent renovation that has transformed it into a “bright, open space with standing desks and plenty of breakout space.”
Back in the Windy City, lawyers have got fantastic views of Lake Michigan as their home occupies floors 23-28 of a 38-floor skyscraper “in the heart of Downtown.” Attorneys might also be distracted by the office's “fetching mint-green interior” or its “excellent cafeteria.” Elsewhere, Dallas sources praised their office's “free parking and shiny new gym,” while occupants of Sidley's Century City digs had nice words to say about their own parking provisions as well as the “really quite groovy modern art” that adorns their walls.
“A full-time pro bono counsel” based in Chicago sends out “at least ten different emails a week” with pro bono opportunities. Partners also allow associates to bring in work that they might be passionate about – “the firm is very supportive, especially for young lawyers, to get whatever experience they can.” Sidley has strong relationships with many not-for-profit organizations including Her Justice, “a group which helps victims of domestic violence,” in New York. They also work closely with DC Legal Aid, and a number of Sidley attorneys have recently represented death row inmates in Alabama.
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 120,473
- Average per US attorney: 67
A diversity committee and committee on the retention and promotion of women both “put on loads of networking and client events focused on diversity.” The former hosts an annual reception at the Staples Center where clients and diverse attorneys come together to watch a Lakers game. There are also group-specific mentoring circles – such as the 'Mother's mentoring circle' – that host lunches and webinars on subjects like time management and recognizing unconscious bias.
Unsurprisingly, given its status, Sidley doesn't really look at candidates outside the top ten schools. But, after that filter is applied, “the firm's focus is slightly more on personality.” As one associate who'd been involved in interviews put it: “We can only tell so much from your résumé and transcripts. Really it's more about whether or not we want to spend 50 hours a week working with you. Can you make sound decisions and can I sit you down at a client lunch?” Flexibility and time-management are also highly valued. “You don't succeed at Sidley if you have to have a set schedule. The ability to get work done without having to constantly look to the client is a major plus for partners.”
As we've mentioned a few times, Sidley is a firm that prides itself on its conservative management. The firm is currently 7th in the most recent AmLaw100 list. As a result of their reluctance to open in new locations, smaller existing offices – like Dallas and Century City – are seeing the most growth, with both purchasing new floor space as they rapidly expand. “Zero debt has been our policy and our practice,” exec committee member Anne Rea confirms. “We have a culture of investing for the future.”
Making A Murderer 2.0: the Curious Case of William Ziegler
MAKING A Murderer is brilliant. It re-defined the genre of true crime documentaries and most people sat in awe as they watched these real, yet fantastical events, unfurl over ten hours of Netflix. But while this may be a stand-out story, it by no means stands alone. Running concurrently to Steven Avery's tale was that of William Ziegler, a 24 year old roofer who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 2003.
In 2005, Sidley Austin took on the appeal as part of their pro bono Capital Litigation Project, which fights for people who are on death row in Alabama. An evidentiary hearing was held in 2010, introducing 690 exhibits and 25 witnesses corroborating Ziegler's protests that his court appointed lawyer had failed to investigate the case and ignored the contradictions in the evidence. Additionally, witnesses had lied. The eye-witness who identified Ziegler as the person who threatened to kill the victim, had testified falsely and the prosecution failed to disclose evidence. Namely the evidence that pointed to the killing taking place in the car of the prosecution's only eye-witness and not in the woods as they had claimed. Finally as it turns out, two jurors had also lied during voir dire.
Ziegler's conviction and sentence were overturned in 2012 on 25 violations of his right to a fair trial. The decision was affirmed in 2014 and a new trial was ordered. The State then attempted to retry Ziegler for capital murder, which would result in either death or life imprisonment without parole if convicted. The court however accepted that vital evidence had already been destroyed or contaminated and so a motion to dismiss was filed.
Before the motion was decided, Ziegler accepted a plea bargain that allowed him to walk free immediately after 12 years in prison, not wanting to place his life in the hands of a jury for a second time.
The cases of Avery and Ziegler are not isolated incidents. While Making A Murderer has raised awareness about miscarriages of justice, gross misconduct (while uncommon) still occurs. Thankfully pro bono initiatives, specifically in the arena of capital punishment, work to mitigate the effects. Sidley's commitment to these causes is matched by other firms of this ilk, who see the value in working to right the ship.
Sidley Austin LLP
One South Dearborn,
787 Seventh Avenue,
- Head Office: Chicago, IL; New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 10
- Number of international offices: 10
- Worldwide revenue: $1,928,000,000
- Partners (US): 572
- Other lawyers (US): 956 (includes counsel and associates)
- Summer Salary 2017
- 1Ls: $3,500/week
- 2Ls: $3,500/week
- Post 3Ls: $3,500/week
- Split summers offered? Case by case
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? No
- Summers 2017: 127
- Offers/acceptances 2016: 173 offers, 153 acceptances to date
Main areas of work
Accountants and professional liability; antitrust/competition; banking and financial services; capital markets; communications regulatory; complex commercial litigation; consumer class actions; corporate governance and executive compensation; corporate reorganization and bankruptcy; emerging companies and venture capital; employee benefits and executive compensation; energy; environmental; ERISA litigation; Food, drug and medical device compliance and enforcement; food, drug and medical device regulatory; global finance; government strategies; healthcare; insurance; insurance disputes; intellectual property litigation; international arbitration; international trade; investment funds, advisers and derivatives; labor, employment and immigration; M&A; non-profit institutions; privacy, data security and information law; private equity; products liability; project finance and infrastructure; real estate; securities and derivatives enforcement and regulatory; securities and shareholder litigation; supreme court and appellate; tax; tax controversy; technology and IP transactions; transportation; trusts and estates; white collar: government litigation and investigations.
Sidley provides a broad range of legal services to meet the needs of our diverse client base. The strategic establishment of our offices in the key corporate and financial centers of the world has enabled us to represent a broad range of clients that includes multinational and domestic corporations, banks, funds and financial institutions. With over 1,900 lawyers in 20 offices around the world, talent and teamwork are central to Sidley’s successful results for clients in all types of legal matters, from complex transactions to ‘bet the company’ litigation to cutting-edge regulatory issues.
• Number of 1st year associates: 117
• Number of 2nd year associates: 135
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, DePaul, Duke, Fordham, Georgetown, George Washington, Harvard, Howard, Houston, Illinois, Iowa, Chicago – Kent, Loyola, Loyola – LA, Michigan, Minnesota, New York University, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Pennsylvania, Santa Clara, Southern Methodist, Stanford, Texas, Toronto, UCLA, USC, Virginia, Washington University, Wisconsin, Yale
Summer associate profile:
Sidley seeks candidates who have demonstrated academic success and possess strong leadership and interpersonal qualities. The firm looks for a diverse group of individuals who are motivated by highly sophisticated legal work practiced in a collegial and supportive environment.
Summer program components:
Sidley’s summer associate program is an invaluable window into its practice and firm culture. Participants select projects that interest them and perform legal work under lawyer supervision. An essential component of Sidley’s summer program is the opportunity to learn and develop professional skills. Hands-on training includes detailed reviews of each summer associate’s work product, as well as more formal training programs such as writing seminars, a mock trial and a mock negotiation exercise. Each summer associate is assigned senior associates and partners to provide guidance and each participant receives a formal review at the midpoint of the summer program.